Low Carbon Tech is Climate Policy

Guest-post by Breakthrough Institute Policy Associate Alex Trembath, cross-posted from the National Journal Energy Experts Blog.

Since 2006, no other developed country has reduced national CO₂ emissions as much as the United States. A surprising outcome, given the last few doom-ridden years since the failure of cap-and-trade in the US Senate in 2010. But America’s climate accomplishments trace their lineage back far before Waxman-Markey and the American Power Act. It didn’t start in 1997 with the Kyoto Protocol, or even in 1992 with the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

US action on climate change began in the early 1970s — we just didn’t know it was climate policy at the time. In response to the successive oil crises, the Ford and Carter Administrations funded major new energy R&D efforts to explore new fuels and new technologies that could hedge the United States’ reliance on OPEC oil and expand American energy diversity. There were many successes from these early investments, including the vaunted first commercial solar panels and wind turbines. But it was the Department of Energy’s investments in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling for shale gas that ultimately led to the dramatic emissions reductions we’re seeing today.

There is a lesson here for supporters of solar, wind, advanced batteries, biofuels, next-generation nuclear, and other sources of low-carbon energy: investment in technology works. In fact, this isn’t even the first time we’ve learned that lesson. The two countries to achieve the highest rates of decarbonization since 1970 are France and Sweden, who accomplished such high rates of carbon reductions by deploying zero-carbon nuclear and hydroelectric generation.

The takeaway for climate hawks is clear. If countries want to cut their carbon emissions today, they can follow the example of Sweden, and France by deploying low-carbon power like conventional nuclear or natural gas generation. If renewables advocates seek a future with high penetrations of solar and wind, they can pursue cradle-to-market public policies similar to the federal government’s shale investments, which led with early R&D and followed with demonstration projects and tax policy support for deployment.

As we documented in our April 2012 report “Beyond Boom and Bust,” co-authored with Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution and Letha Tawney of the World Resources Institute, clean energy policy is best led by doubling down on America’s energy innovation system and re-designing federal deployment policies to prioritize cost declines and performance improvements. The best path to sustained decarbonization is to bet on domestic energy resources, resource diversity, and cleaner technologies — just like we did with shale gas.

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About the author

Matthew Stepp is a Senior Analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) specializing in climate change and clean energy policy. His research interests include clean energy technology development, climate science policy development, transportation policy, and the role innovation has in economic growth.